I made it clear before the election that I was not a supporter of then candidate, but now president, Trump. Indeed, I encouraged Christians to consider taking a position of “NeverTrump.” I also fully expected Trump to lose in the election. This was not just “wishful thinking” on my part as the surveys seemed to reinforce the reality that Trump was going to lose. It is not that I supported Clinton. Her disdain for religious freedom made me unwilling to support her. Before the election I announced my support for a third party candidate. But I knew Trump would be bad news for Christians and the rest of society, so he received my greatest rebuke.
Perhaps what was must disconcerting to me personally about the election of Trump was the support he received from white evangelicals. According to post-election surveys, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. This is higher than what Romney and McCain, two better and more moral men in my opinion, received. I fully realized that part of the problem was Clinton’s dismissive attitude towards those Christians, but still I was floored that so many Christians would vote for this womanizing, race-baiting, incompetent, vulgar man. This is especially hypocritical after the uproar many of them had in light of the sexual harassment accusations towards President Clinton. By supporting Trump, white evangelicals have given up any high moral ground they may have possessed as it concern moral behavior in politicians.
While many in the anti-Trump crowd went immediately to a resistance stance I moved in a different direction. I decided to try to figure out why so many evangelicals decided to vote for Trump. I used my facebook page to invite answers to that question. I promised there would be no debate but only active listening on my part. I found three basic answers: they were Republicans and were going to support the Republican candidate no matter what, they felt that Clinton was guilty of all the sins Trump was accused of, and they feared that Clinton was going to attack them. In time, I may write about the first two reasons, but for the balance of this blog I want to focus on the third reason.
As it is clear in much of my writings, both academic and non-academic, I know that anti-Christian hostility is a very real problem in our society. I understand their concerns that progressives have a blind spot when it comes to anti-Christian bigotry. I largely agree with that sentiment. But Trump is not the answer. Indeed I fear that in the long run he will make things worse.
I fully acknowledge that there are potential short-term political gains for Christians because of Trump. The appointment of Judge Gorsuch is one example. Furthermore, I am very happy with Trump’s reinstatement of the Mexico City policy which curtails American support of international abortion. But regardless of these benefits, there is a real danger in that Christians will be more influenced by him than they influence him. It is only natural to move one’s opinions closer to someone thought of as being one’s leader. And in this case it may move the perspectives of Christians closer to that of a man who has not displayed an in-depth consideration of the complicated issues facing our society and often has a populist instinct that does not serve us well.
For example, a recent survey indicated that white evangelicals are much more likely to support the refugee ban than other Americans. Why is that? I understand that many white evangelicals are political conservatives and as such, are likely to take a stricter tone on issues of immigration. But to ban refugees? Is there truly a Christian case for banning individuals who have suffered persecution in other countries? If anything it seems to me that the Christian is called to welcome the least of these more than to ban them. I am not going to pretend that it is unreasonable to be concerned about who is allowed into our society. But why are Christians more likely to accept the ban than others? Is it because having voted for Trump, white evangelicals now feel obligated to support whatever measures he proposes? In doing so, have we forfeited our witness to Muslims and other immigrants?
What about support for Russia? The Republican base, of whom white evangelicals play a major role, now show support for Russia. Remember when Reagan called them the “evil empire”? Well that might not have been the best approach for handing them, but is acquiescing to a, at best morally questionable, leader in Putin any better? It makes no sense for Christians to throw their support to Russia more than others except if we allow for the possibility that they are following their new leader – Trump.
At one time, conservative Christians were highly likely link private morality to fitness for office. But not anymore. So what created this change in attitude? Am I cynical to believe that adopting this attitude made it easier to vote for a thrice-married hedonist?
Do you remember this press conference? Did you notice that Trump states that the leaks are real but the news from them is fake? Logically both cannot be true. Conservative Christians certainly would not, and should not, allow President Obama to get away with such an inconsistent statement. But the criticism of Trump has been muted by Christians and there seems to be little push for accountability for the information that emerged from those leaks. The call for accountability was clearly much higher when Clinton was the victim of leaking. Perhaps it is because white evangelicals have suddenly become more accepting of immorality within political leaders.
I can go on, but I believe my point has been made. Some Christians are changing their beliefs to accommodate their new leader. I am certain that there is a limitation to how far they would change their beliefs (for example, I do not believe that they will suddenly start supporting abortion even if Trump announces himself as pro-choice) but these are not Bible –based changes. Then again when some Christian ministers defend insulting tweets from Trump by likening him to Jesus, then perhaps Trump cannot go too far for some Christians. Instead there are cognitive accommodations and perhaps even hero worship. I told my friends before the election that if they support Trump then they will soon find themselves supporting actions and ideas that go against the main values of their faith. I believe we are seeing that happen right now. I have to wonder, what good is it to support Trump if one loses one’s values, dare I say soul, by doing so?
There is a natural tendency to give those we voted for leeway that we would not provide those we see as opponents. That is tribalism. If we assert global values then we do not have the intellectual luxury of tribalism. Because white evangelicals supported Trump more than Romney and McCain, they own the reputation that Trump develops unless they are willing to confront Trump when he goes astray. But such confrontation, at least by evangelicals who voted for Trump, has not occurred to a sufficient degree.
This leads to how support for Trump ultimately will be bad for Christians in the long-term even if his election provides some short-term relief from Christianophobic attacks. When a person is elected in part because of the support of certain interest groups, then the members of that group have bought that politician. I do not mean under the table dealings. What I mean is that the image of that politician helps to shape public perception of that interest group. The failure of members who support that politician to challenge him or her feeds into this image.
White evangelicals voted for Trump in large numbers and were an important part of him winning the presidency. They also have gone along with him and even changed some of their moral standards for him. So when he is seen, fairly or not, as racist they will be seen as racist. When he is seen as misogynistic, they will be seen as misogynistic. When he is seen as anti-science they will be seen as anti-science. The casual observer saw white evangelicals vote for Trump in large numbers and sees how those white evangelicals do not challenge Trump so that making these associations seems like a natural step to take.
I know that many of my friends will protest. They will say that merely voting for Trump does not mean that they approve of everything he does. I would tell them that I agree, but ultimately that will not matter. You will be seen as approving all he does because you are not challenging him, and he is in office because of your support. If Trump’s administration does a good job, then this will impact the image Americans have of white Evangelicals, right? But have you seen the latest poll numbers? It seems that things are going to end badly for the Trump administration, and it will drag down the perception of white evangelicals, and conservative Christians in general.
This will matter greatly in the long-term and will undo whatever benefits Christian receive in the short-term with their support for Trump. In the long-term having “the judges” will not matter if you have lost the culture. And the culture is lost when the common image of your group is one of racism, sexism, ignorance and intolerance. Cultural beliefs are what led to many of our political changes rather than vice versa. Sometimes these changes are good such as the cultural beliefs in racial equality which buttressed the Civil Rights Movement. Sometimes the cultural beliefs are bad such as those in the sexual revolution that ultimately has led to irresponsible behavior and increased divorce rate. Cultural beliefs will underpin real world action and political victories/defeats. If Christians have a choice between short-term political victories or long-term cultural wins, they better take the long term cultural wins every time.
But Trump represents the short-term political win. Yes you get Gorsuch, but now a generation of future voters are being taught that those Christians put the man who displays an astonishing lack of discipline and insight into office. Yeah we are no longer funding abortions overseas, but Christians are seen as making excuses for a president who seems to lie as often as he breathes. Some Christians have complained, rightly so, that many progressives want to see them as marginalized as the KKK. Being linked to Trump may one day be a catalyst to such marginalization. If that type of marginalization occurs, then no matter who the Supreme Court Justices are, it will become depressingly easy for the enemies of conservative Christians to target them politically and socially.
A certain amount of damage has already been done. White evangelicals voted for Trump in tremendous numbers and as a result of that, there is a certain amount of negative stigma that will be attached to this type of religious faith. But perhaps the damage can be mitigated to some degree. Having put Trump in office, it is the responsibility of his evangelical supporters to hold him accountable and demand better from him. They must put pressure on him to be more honest in dealing with Federal investigations. They should publically implore him to make overtures to people of color and to combat Islamophobia. They need to show that they will not tolerate any demeaning comments made about any other social group. To be sure, even with these moves, there will still be stigma attached to white evangelical support of Trump. But they can show that their support is not unconditional.
I fear that too many Christians have looked to Trump to save them from some of the anti-Christian attitudes and actions they face. I understand their desire for relief but Christians need to recognize that Trump is not their savior. If they are to have any hope to retain a place in the public square, then they must repair images perpetrated about them as being intolerant and stupid. Supporting nearly everything Trump does only feeds that image, instead of challenging it. Thus Trump must be held accountable for his comments and actions if we are to have some hope of gaining respect from the larger culture.